In an industry dominated by men, Offshore Liftboats is owned and operated by two women. CFO Lauren Melancon Cheramie and CEO Vanessa Melancon Pierce are sisters and part of the third generation of liftboat operators, having taken over from their parents a little over a year ago. This is a unique industry, and only twelve such companies exist in the United States.
A liftboat is a self-propelled vessel often used to perform various activities on shallow-water oil and gas platforms such as those found in the Gulf of Mexico. Liftboats are equipped with
cranes and have an open deck layout which can be used by Oil and Gas companies to store supplies and equipment needed to perform the necessary duties for a number of different types of projects. The self-raising liftboat will pull alongside a platform, extend its retractable legs (usually three) onto the seafloor and then raise itself on those legs until it clears the water. After it has settled, it raises itself further until it is at working height. A stable temporary working platform has now been created.
In the 1970s, Lauren and Vanessa’s grandfather began his career in the liftboat industry. His son, Mike, joined the company, then known as Falcon Operators, in the eighties. In 2001 Mike and his wife Annie purchased Falcon Operators’ Class 120 and Class 105 vessels and created Offshore Liftboats. The original vessels owned by Offshore Liftboats were quite a bit smaller than those used by the company today. Since then, Offshore Liftboats has built eight vessels and a ninth – the Class 230 – is currently under construction.
This past January, Mike and Annie retired, and the third generation of the Melancon family took over. “We have been here for quite some time, but took full control as of January first.” Vanessa and Lauren are the first female owners and operators of liftboats in the Gulf of Mexico and have been with the company for thirteen years.
Quality, Health, Safety and Environment Manager Craig Pierce has been with the company for eleven years and its safety program has been developed under Craig’s management.
The company commitment to safety is admirable. The safety department, HR and maintenance are all run under the safety department’s umbrella which ensures that all of the crews are properly trained in safety. The maintenance of the vessel is also critical to keep it running safely.
“We are putting a lot of departments under the safety banner to ensure that every person involved in our organization is trained to put safety first.”
Over the past year, it has streamlined its processes to include digital technology. The captain and mate have a computer and a tablet to make information readily accessible. Microsoft OneDrive permits access to files from any location and Sinex, a web-based program is used to track all the maintenance functions throughout the vessel. It will send out updates and reminders for safety and maintenance checks. The technology enables the company to keep up with events aboard any of their vessels in real time.
The Sinex program has been valuable for reporting and checking maintenance schedules and safety inspections and ensuring that things are being done in a timely fashion. Paperwork being replaced by real-time information means that any issues are dealt with promptly. “On the document side, it’s been very valuable for auditing purposes – when we do safety audits on the vessels or spot checks.”
The company, which operates in an area which is prone to hurricane activity, is ready for any emergency. The Louisiana head office was built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane and continue running afterwards using backup generators.
“As soon as the storm has passed, we are available to go right back to work. This is when our customers need us the most. They often have damage offshore and need our vessels to get out there and start working on securing their property. Lauren and I have a vision for the future, which is to continue to provide the newest and best available equipment.”
The Class 230 is the largest vessel that the company has ever built and only six of them operate in the Gulf of Mexico. However, this one is unique as it is the only Class 230 equipped with a 250 tonne primary crane. It will give Offshore Liftboats a little more water depth than the Class 200 and the opportunity to work on jobs that require more lifting capacity or a larger deck space. It boasts 1,000 square feet more than the 200.
“We are looking at 6,000 square feet of deck space with a lot of lifting capabilities with the crane, and we will be able to work in one hundred eighty feet of water.” This vessel will open up new markets for the company and once again prove to its customers that it is committed to using the newest equipment. The trend began with the older, smaller vessels being sold and replaced with newer ones. When its building program started, Offshore Liftboats was constructing Class 175 vessels; it then cracked the Class 200 market and now Class 230. It has always been committed to replacing the old equipment with the newest safety systems and the best technology available.
The potential for growth is dependent on the health of the oil industry. With oil prices as low as they are currently, it is making things difficult. However, Offshore Liftboats does intend to continue to grow and will continue to build large vessels.
Once it started the building program, its fleet has always been newer than ten years old, and that will remain a constant. “The building of new vessels will be dependent on the market and the needs of our customers. Things are tough in this industry, and it has halted our progress somewhat. However, we do intend to pick things up once the market turns around.”
Since liftboats are rare, every person that works in the company has to be an expert in this industry. Offshore Liftboats has always been run by people with experience who can actually operate these pieces of equipment offshore. Every staff member is specifically trained in the ability to maintain and operate liftboats, but since there are only twelve liftboat companies in the United States, this makes for a small pool of expertise.
“We are a small market and have a rigorous training program for our crew members on the vessels. They are mentored with people in senior positions. There are safety training programs, a mentoring program, and a crane training program. It is rigorous and above regulatory expectations, which leads to our crew’s performance on the job.”
Offshore Liftboats has always received excellent feedback from its customers about the work that the crews do. It is work well done and safely done which is a direct result of the training programs and mentoring.
Whether a newcomer has ten years of experience working with liftboats or is new to the industry, they are still put through the mentoring process to make sure that they are doing the job to the expectations of the company. A deck hand who starts with Offshore Liftboats at an entry level position will have the opportunity to rise through the ranks. Quite a few captains started as deck hands at the age of eighteen or nineteen and are now running the vessels.
“We pride ourselves on being able to offer that to our employees. We do have a very stringent training program because we do want to bring these entry level positions all the way to captain. Twenty-five percent of our captains started at the entry level.”
Lauren and Vanessa have owned the company since December of 2013 but only went public with the news at the end of 2014. They were a little concerned because the oil and gas industry is traditionally male-dominated, and they were uncertain of the reception they would receive as women in the industry. However, it turns out that they were welcomed with open arms.
“It’s been an honour to be allowed this opportunity by our parents. It’s been an honour to be accepted into this industry the way that we have, and we are so excited to be the first women to own and operate liftboats. It speaks volumes for the industry as to how we have been so openly accepted.”
Being the third generation in the company has helped since they have been in the industry all their lives as part of a respected company. Although they are always learning something new, they know the vessels and the operations inside and out.
“Offshore Liftboats is committed to safety. We are committed to servicing our customers. We are a family owned and operated company, which carries through to the way we treat our staff. What we do here, we do for the benefit of family, and that’s just the way that Lauren and I view our continued growth in this industry.”